3:10 a.m. Wed, April 16th

Even a few pain pills may be unsafe in heart disease

May 18, 2011, 2:31 p.m.

By Alison McCook

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Some anti-inflammatory painkillers are known to increase heart risks, and new findings from more than 83,000 people suggest that even a couple of days of treatment can be dangerous in people with a history of heart problems.

A group of researchers from Denmark found that people who had experienced a heart attack and took the painkillers, called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), had a 45 percent higher risk of having another heart attack or dying within 7 days of treatment.

After 30 days of treatment, the increased risk reached between 55 and 65 percent, relative to people who did not take NSAIDs.

"We demonstrated that short-term treatment with most NSAIDs is associated with increased cardiovascular risk," study author Anne-Marie Schjerning Olsen at Copenhagen University Hospital told Reuters Health. "Our present results indicate that there is no apparent safe therapeutic window for NSAIDs in patients with prior" heart attack.

These findings "fall very much in line" with a 2007 scientific statement from the American Heart Association, co-authored by Dr. Elliott Antman, which also suggested that "none of these (drugs) are safe," Antman told Reuters Health.

When people with heart risks have pain that isn't responding to non-drug interventions, they should "pick the safest drug in the lowest dose needed to control the patient's symptoms, and for the shortest period of time," Antman said.

NSAIDs include over-the-counter medications like aspirin, ibuprofen (marketed as Advil, Motrin and other brands) and naproxen (Aleve), as well as prescription arthritis drugs known as COX-2 inhibitors.

The COX-2 inhibitors were first linked to an increased risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular problems, and two of the drugs -- rofecoxib (Vioxx) and valdecoxib (Bextra) -- were pulled from the market in 2004 and 2005, respectively; a third COX-2 inhibitor, celecoxib (Celebrex) remains on the market.

But subsequent studies also raised concerns about the possible heart risks of some of the older, over-the-counter NSAIDs, including ibuprofen and diclofenac (Voltaren).

To investigate whether even short-term use of NSAIDs carries risks to people who are perhaps more vulnerable, Olsen and her colleagues reviewed national data collected from all Danish residents. They identified more than 83,000 people who had experienced a heart attack, noting who subsequently took NSAIDs, and for how long.

Overall, more than 35,000 participants died or experienced a subsequent heart attack over the course of the study.

More than 40 percent of people took an NSAID after their heart attacks, and even short-term use was associated with more risks, the authors report in the journal Circulation. The most common NSAIDs used were ibuprofen (23 percent) and diclofenac (13 percent).

Not all NSAIDs were associated with the same risks at the same time - ibuprofen, celecoxib, and rofecoxib, for instance, did not come with a higher risk of death or heart attack until after at least 7 to 14 days of treatment. The authors note that people taking the commonly used diclofenac were more at risk early in treatment than those taking rofecoxib, which has been withdrawn from the market over safety concerns.